Church Chants 'Ride For Christ's Sake'

At Freedom Biker Church, Sunday service is less about singing traditional hymns and more about listening to rock 'n' roll at a biker rally. Preacher Mike Beasley founded the church in 2006, and since then, the network has grown to 12 churches. He speaks with Michel Martin about his vision.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host: I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. You talk back to us. It's our Backtalk segment, and that's in just a few minutes, along with updates on some stories we've covered. But first, it's time for Faith Matters. That's the part of the program where we talk about matters of faith and spirituality. Today, we are going to go to the Bible Belt, and it's not surprising to learn that there are groups of Christians who are committed to spreading the Gospel there, but what might be surprising is the focus of their ministry. Bikers.

It's called the Freedom Biker Church. It now has branches in the Carolinas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Colorado, and even British Columbia, Canada. Its mission is to reach out to, quote, "un-churched bikers," unquote - that is, bikers who would probably not be too comfortable walking into a mainstream church.

Here is the church founder, Preacher Mike Beasley.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOTORCYCLE ENGINE)

MIKE BEASLEY: You take Biker Bob out there or Billy that's got hair down to here and tattoos and old gruff and he gets saved. Now, what do you do? You get cleaned up and cover your tattoos and cut your hair and stuff and we'll let you come in, but you're never going to teach Sunday school. You're probably never going to sing in the choir or what.

MARTIN: Or what? And Preacher Mike Beasley joins us now. Welcome. Thank you for joining us.

BEASLEY: Thank you so much, Michel, for the invitation and the opportunity.

MARTIN: Now, a phrase on your website struck me. It says black leather, tattoos, jeans, proper Sunday attire.

BEASLEY: Yes, that's it.

MARTIN: Aside from what members of your congregation are - would it be allowed or encouraged to wear - what would you say? Allowed or encouraged?

BEASLEY: You know, probably our specific is as long as you wear clothing, we don't say what kind, but it is a biker church, so it's okay to have leather, jeans and tattoos. That's one of the probably unique things about Freedom. That whole wall of expectation's down and we want you to be comfortable in who you are and in your own skin.

MARTIN: Now, how did you come up with the idea for this? I understand that you were a pastor in so-called mainstream churches and I'm only using that term because I can't figure out what else to use.

BEASLEY: Well, some people use traditional, but...

MARTIN: Traditional. Okay.

BEASLEY: But mainstream's more politically correct these days, so...

MARTIN: Okay, okay.

BEASLEY: I don't want to make church folks mad and say traditional.

MARTIN: Okay.

BEASLEY: But - yeah. Fifteen years, me and my wife served in mainstream traditional churches and that's what God called us into. I surrendered to preach in 1990 and have enjoyed it the whole time, for 15 years and...

MARTIN: But you also like to ride. You and your wife also like to ride, right?

BEASLEY: Oh, absolutely. We have rode motorcycles for years and when I was pastor in a mainstream church, some of the folks didn't really like for their pastor to be a biker, but he was. But, you know, I had the cleaned up look, cut the hair, put on a suit and tie on Sundays. But, you know, I have to admit I was a little uncomfortable sometimes myself. When you get home from church on Sunday and the first thing we would do was - off with the suit, off with the dress. Put on the jeans, leathers, whatever, and we would head out.

MARTIN: So was it something that you kind of kept - I don't want to say hidden - but kind of kept apart from your church life or you just didn't talk about it very much?

BEASLEY: Well, probably. You know, it was kind of a running joke with some of our folks. I'd pull into some of our ladies, you know, visiting and stuff and if I was on the motorcycle and it was a beautiful day, I'd cut it off in the driveway and kind of coast up because I knew if they knew I was on the motorcycle I had to hear it in a sweet and kind way, but I think it depends on what generation you're from.

Bikers still have a - there's still a lot of stereotyping that takes place and so, unfortunately, you know, that still takes place somewhat in church, not just for bikers. But for us, you know, we just had a passion for the motorcycle community for some time and had been ministering and witnessing the bikers through a local motorcycle ministry for years.

And the thing that seemed to be missing that the Lord put into our hearts in 2005 was that there was not a place for un-churched bikers to come and explore about, you know, a relationship with Christ and know more about the church. And so that's really what spawned Freedom Biker Church, was to just have a neutral place, a safe place that they could come and just check it out, so to speak.

MARTIN: I was going to ask about that. Was it, a eureka moment? How did it come to you that this was the path that you should go down? Like, was it Saul on the road the Damascus? Did you get struck?

BEASLEY: You know, it was a oh-my-goodness-run moment. We were actually at an event. The Lord had been dealing with our hearts about something like this because in the biker ministry that we were in, we had an opportunity to minister to a lot of the members in that group and other folks and just really saw that a lot of them were having a hard time getting connected in their local church that they were involved with. People were not necessarily understanding them or wondering, you know, why do you have to be like this or ride that motorcycle or have the tattoos or long hair or whatever.

And so our heart was really kind of going out and I was a pastor, so a lot of the guys and gals would come to me or my wife and talk with us and just, you know, share some of their struggles and burdens in their own church. And so the thought was that, wow, you know, how neat it would be to have a place that they could come to, a church like this.

We were having a rally every third Sunday of the month in the afternoons and bikers would come from all over the state to this thing and we called it Journey to Hope. And it was really incredible and just the level of freedom, the experience that was there and people really just loved it. And several folks were saying this would be so awesome if we could have something like this every Sunday. That's really...

MARTIN: It was kind of like a rally. It was kind of like a biker rally...

BEASLEY: Exactly, exactly.

MARTIN: ...where people just kind of get together to hang out and hear a word while they're there.

BEASLEY: That's it. But, you know, it's a biker rally and then the, you know, the gospel breaks out, so...

MARTIN: You know, there is this perception though, you talk about the stereotypes that people have about bikers. I mean, on the one hand, yes, the bike is associated with freedom, but sometimes people translate that love of freedom with a love of partying, hard partying and...

BEASLEY: Oh, yeah.

MARTIN: You know, wildness, alcohol, drugs, that kind of thing. I just have to ask, Pastor, if you don't mind, is there some truth to that stereotype?

BEASLEY: Well, probably, sure. I mean, you know, bikers - I guess the freedom - I think the biggest thing in the freedom is the independence. You know, the biker culture really began to grow and spawn from men coming out of the military years ago and that's where a lot of our groups came out and different biker clubs and stuff around the country grew out of. And so you had this whole real mentality and mindset of freedom.

But - yeah. There definitely is. Like in any lifestyle, there can be an indulgence too much and...

MARTIN: You know, I have a question, though, that strikes me. Is it that alcohol is associated with biking in part because bikers aren't offered anything else to do while they're biking? Is that part of it? Is it not so much that bikers want to drink, it's that drinking is accepting, whereas if other alternatives are offered...

BEASLEY: Right.

MARTIN: ...then maybe people would - well, I'm just - the reason I was thinking about that is that on your website you feature a testimonial from two of your congregants, Carmen and Mike Barber (ph). Is it okay if I play that?

BEASLEY: Absolutely.

MARTIN: Okay. Here it is.

(SOUNDBITE OF RECORDING)

CARMEN BARBER: The Freedom Biker Church has really changed our lives. It's taught us how to live.

MIKE BARBER: At function I did, beer was involved in it, and I have been without it and I don't even miss it. Today's my birthday. It's going to be my first sober one in over 30-some years.

MARTIN: Is that a big part of the ministry?

BEASLEY: You know, it really is huge and we don't promote the partaking of alcohol or whatnot. We don't also get the Bible out and beat people over the head. We allow the Holy Spirit to deal with folks' lives, just like Mike on the video. He'd be the first one to tell you.

I think the biggest thing - I don't know a lot of folks, a lot of alcoholics or drunks that go to a bar to get drunk. It's way too expensive. If you're going to get drunk, you go to the grocery store and you buy, you know, a six pack or something or several and go home. People go to bars and stuff because they're looking for relationships and somewhere to belong.

Everybody in the world is looking for acceptance, security, significance of some kind, and a real genuine love from somebody. And when you take those components together, people end up going down certain paths or choosing certain things in life, vices or whatnot, because they're missing one of those four components, or, you know, all four.

And what Freedom really is, is just taking the essence of the church in our relationship with Jesus Christ and bringing that into, you know, I guess in a real sense of just pure saying, hey, here's no pretenses, no walls. You come as you are. You be who you are and we just want to encourage you right along beside of you and whatever you're dealing with and use the scriptures as our guide and allow, you know, the Holy Spirit in people's lives to make the change and to be that significant something in their life.

And it's been an incredible journey. I mean, God called us to ministry in 1990. I've been pastoring ever since. I love it, but I love what I've seen in the last five years through the ministry of Freedom Biker Church, and not just in the one in Angier, North Carolina, the home office or the original one that started, but in all of our churches, whether it's in Vancouver, Canada or whether it's, you know, Lafayette or Mississippi - every one of them, we hear the same stories. Maybe it's different names, but it's the same stories and people are coming and they're finding something that they describe as real. A real relationship, a real genuineness, and that's the uniqueness, I think, and I think that's also what the church really should be representing.

When we read the scriptures, the church hung out together, they took care of each other, they supported each other. They were a real brotherhood and sisterhood, and if you look at the biker community, that's what the biker community is all about: brotherhood.

MARTIN: I was going to ask you that - before we let you go. And thank you for taking the time and I'm tempted to ask you what you're going to preach on on Sunday, but maybe you don't want to give me a preview.

But is there something...

BEASLEY: Transfiguration.

MARTIN: Transfiguration. Okay.

BEASLEY: Shiny chrome.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Okay. I was going to say alternate fuels, maybe. I don't know. But do you think there is something that traditional churches could learn - or houses of worship, right, could learn from your experience in preaching to the biker community?

BEASLEY: You know, Michel, me and my wife get an opportunity still to go back to a lot of mainstream churches and share what the Lord's been doing in Freedom, and the one thing I try to share every time we go is God's called(ph) is our slogan on our website and a lot of our material is let's ride for Christ's sake.

I believe that all of us - you know, we're created in God's image. We should be doing something, you know, especially as believers, for His sake. And I think that our mainstream churches - we really need to step back and take a look at what we're doing and how we're doing it. A lot of churches are doing an incredible job reaching people in the communities, but I think that there's a lot of churches also that still have, you know, half empty pews and they're just not really being effective in the community.

And I challenge them every time we share with this: If your church closed its doors today, would your community miss it? Would the community even know the church was not there anymore? I really believe with all my heart, Michel, that if Freedom Biker Church stopped existing today, that the biker community would really notice it and miss it because it has made that much of an impact within the biker community.

And that's something that I think all of our churches should be challenged with. Are we really making a significant impact and having influence in our communities? For us, it's the biker community. That's our community. But for local churches or places of worship, you know, it's the community around them, the neighborhoods and so forth.

MARTIN: Mike Beasley is a founder and pastor of Freedom Biker Church in Angier, North Carolina. He was kind enough to join us from Raleigh. Preacher Mike, let's ride!

BEASLEY: Amen. Thank you, Michel. God bless you.

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